Monday, June 06, 2022


Vanity Fair has published a long excerpt from Battling the Big Lie, the forthcoming book by former Obama communications director Dan Pfeiffer, in which Pfeiffer addresses the question "Why do Democrats suck at messaging?" Mostly, he denigrates those who ask the question and denies that Democrats are worse at messaging than Republicans.

First, the denigration. Pfeiffer has attended a lot of fund-raisers attended by very rich people, some of whom ask him why Democrats suck at messaging. He implies that if you've ever asked that question, you're just like those arrogant rich folks.
The Question was usually, but not always, asked politely. Sometimes it came with a series of ideas. Politics is one of those endeavors where everyone thinks they are qualified to have an opinion. And the people successful enough to write checks big enough to attend these events are generally not the sort of people who experience self-doubt.

... their “thoughts” usually amounted to their pretending that their experience making a fortune selling mail-order underwear, betting against the housing market, or producing a hit sitcom made them qualified to do my job.

... There was a running joke in the Obama White House that you needed a master’s in economics to discuss economic policy and a doctorate in public health to offer health care ideas, but everyone believed that reading the newspaper made them qualified to opine on messaging strategy.
Imagine: People have the unmitigated gall to complain about how a political party does business in a democracy. And by the way, you don't need a master's in economics to say that a $7.25 minimum wage is too low (or that gas prices are high right now). Many people with undiagnosed or chronic illnesses come to understand their medical condition better than their doctors. We're voters who know that Democratic policies are popular and that Democrats aren't. Democrats lost an election to Donald Trump, for crissakes, and they might lose another one to him. If we think something is wrong here, maybe Pfeiffer and his fellow know-it-alls should pay attention rather than blowing us off.

Pfeiffer insists that Republicans aren't particularly good at messaging.
There is an old saying in Washington: “The only people who believe Republican talking points are Democrats.”
Right -- pay no attention to the 40% of Americans who think the 2020 presidential election was stolen, or the massive number of Republicans who told pollsters during Barack Obama's presidency that they didn't believe he was born in the U.S. (and who probably still think he's lying about his citizenship).

Pfeiffer continues:
Democrats love to complain about the messaging chops of their congressional leadership team, but have you watched the Republicans? During every appearance, Kevin McCarthy looks like he just woke up from a nap and can’t figure out where he is or what he is doing. Mitch McConnell, one of the worst communicators in modern political history, sounds like he is reading The Almanac of American Politics with a mouthful of marbles. And no one exemplifies the adage of “less is more” more than Ted Cruz, an amalgamation of the five most annoying people you went to high school with. Arkansas senator Tom Cotton makes Jared Kushner look like a magnetic personality.
He has a point about those guys, but they aren't the people who are the master messengers. He writes:
Turn on Fox News, and you’ll find a parade of awkward, angry white men doing bad impressions of Donald Trump.
Actually, Trump is imitating them. And if they're so terrible at their jobs, why do our favorites on MSNBC so rarely beat them in the ratings? Why has Fox been the most influential media organization in America for since the end of the twentieth century?
Even Trump, the supposed master media manipulator, has the discipline and strategic thinking of a coked-up Tasmanian devil. Just look at his Twitter feed from the end of the 2020 campaign. Instead of using his biggest platform to drive home a positive argument for his reelection and a negative message against Joe Biden, Trump engaged in a scattershot Festivus-style airing of grievances against members of his own party, the media, and random celebrities.
I'll grant that this didn't get him reelected -- but it did generate the second-highest vote total any presidential candidate has ever received, and it helped sustain a movement that's still going strong. Biden beat Trump at the ballot box, but Democratic voters are fickle, and Republican voters aren't. Which gets us back to the original question: Is it the messaging?

Many, many paragraphs later, Pfeiffer concedes that Fox News -- you know, that channel full of awkward white men -- is the GOP's not-so-secret weapon:
The Republicans have a cable television network whose sole raison d’être is to attack Democrats and promote pro-GOP talking points. The conservative media dwarfs the progressive media in size and scope. And even then, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. The bulk of the media on the right is an adjunct of the party apparatus; during the Trump presidency it was state-adjacent propaganda—Pravda, but with plausible deniability.

Much of the media on the left is focused on holding Democrats accountable and/or moving the party’s agenda in a more progressive direction. This is, of course, an admirable and necessary task, but it doesn’t do much to help Democratic candidates and causes win the messaging battle against Republicans come election time.
I agree that this is a big problem. But when Democratic insiders lament that we don't have a Fox of our own, there's an implication that therefore Democrats can't possibly be held accountable for their messaging failures. The game is rigged! Why even try to message if we don't have a powerful megaphone?

But Republicans were "working the refs" even before there was Fox -- in fact, the phrase "working the refs" came from an interview with a Republican operative in 1992, four years before Fox went on the air. Republicans didn't win the 1992 presidential election, but they won the three that preceded it, all without Fox. Ronald Reagan's administration was seen as such a skillful manipulator of the mainstream media in the 1980s that one book about the media's extremely deferential relationship to the Reagan administration was titled On Bended Knee. And then in 1994 the Gingrich Republicans won both houses of Congress, also without Fox (though they did have talk radio).

You go to war with the media you have, not the media you wish you had. Republicans won elections in the '80s and in 1994 by learning how to use (and manipulate) the media they had. Much of the messaging was negative -- Reagan and Gingrich loved attacking the media and Democrats, and George H.W. Bush's campaign portrayed Mike Dukakis as a grotesque weirdo who couldn't be trusted with power. Democrats' biggest messaging failure is the party's inability to agree on a simple message about their own party and the Republicans: we're right, they're wrong. That was the title of a 1996 James Carville book, but now the party's message tends to be they're right a great deal of the time, and we're frequently wrong. Democrats should start by jettisoning that message, and try taking their own side in every argument. I know that's crazy talk to most Democrats, but hey, it just might be crazy enough to work.

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